BEIRUT (Reuters/Bloomberg)–A huge car bomb killed Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and at least 12 other people on Monday in Beirut’s most devastating attack since the 1975-90 civil war.
Hariri’s motorcade was blown up as it passed an exclusive section of the Corniche–soon after he left a meeting at parliament to discuss elections in May. Former Economy Minister Basil Fuleihan–riding in the convoy–was critically wounded.
The explosion outside the St George Hotel gouged a deep crater out of the road–ripped facades from luxury buildings–and set cars ablaze on streets carpeted with rubble and broken glass. Officials said at least 100 people were wounded.
Several of the vehicles from Hariri’s convoy were torn apart and set on fire despite their armor plating.
"Everything around us collapsed," a Syrian building worker at the site said. "It was as if an earthquake hit the area." Hariri–a billionaire businessman–had resigned from government in October but remained politically influential. He recently joined calls by the opposition for Syrian troops to quit Lebanon in the run-up to the general election.
"Syria regards this as an act of terrorism–a crime that seeks to destabilize (Lebanon)," said Syrian Information Minister Mahdi Dakhl-Allah.
He later told Al Jazeera television: "This comes at a time of great international pressure on Lebanon and Syria which aims to realize Israel’s desires in the region–and this act cannot be separated from these pressures."
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called the blast a "horrendous criminal act."
Lebanese President Emile Lahoud called an emergency cabinet meeting.
Rescue workers clawed at piles of debris across the street from the hotel.
Witnesses said at least five people had been buried there by the explosion.
The blast could be heard even outside the city limits and shattered windows in buildings hundreds of meters away.
Scores of firefighters doused the burning vehicles and bloodied survivors were taken away by ambulance. Hariri’s body–with wounds and burns to the face–was taken to the American University Hospital where sympathizers gathered and wept.
Prime Minister Omar Karami visited the bomb scene–surrounded by security men. Columns of dark acrid smoke rose across a clear blue sky and sea.
Bloody History of Car Bombs
Beirut was regularly rocked by car bombs throughout the civil war–when fighting among ethnic–religious and political factions all but tore Lebanon apart. Neighboring Syria became the ever more dominant player during the conflict–and its forces took much of the credit for bringing the war to a close.
But Lebanese voices calling for Damascus to pull out its 14,000 troops have grown louder–backed by a UN Security Council resolution calling for their withdrawal.
In October a remote-controlled car bomb wounded opposition parliamentarian Marwan Hamadeh–soon after he resigned as economy minister in protest at the extension of Syrian-backed President Lahoud’s term.
Mohammad Jihad Ahmed Jibril–a Palestinian military leader–was killed by a bomb that ripped through his car in Beirut in May 2002. Earlier that year–a bomb killed Elie Hobeika–a key figure in a massacre of Palestinian refugees in 1982.
Hariri–60–had held office for most of the past 12 years before quitting in October 2004 amid a bitter rift with Lahoud.
The Sunni Muslim Hariri spent some 20 years in Saudi Arabia–where construction deals made him a fortune that Forbes estimated at $3.8 billion in 2003.
Businessmen praised him for cutting through a paralyzed bureaucracy and rebuilding war-shattered Beirut. But hopes that economic renaissance would flower with a Middle East peace process wilted with it instead.
There was no claim of responsibility for the assassination and no obvious suspect.
"This is the work of an intelligence service–not a small group," said Rime Allaf–Middle East analyst at London’s Royal Institute of International Affairs.
"Whoever did it aimed at creating chaos in Lebanon and pointing the finger at Syria. I can’t believe anyone in Syria could be naive enough to think that this would help them."
She added: "The Israelis have been thought responsible for a number of assassinations in Lebanon–but why would they want to stir things up now? The Syrians must be very worried."
Amr Moussa–head of the Arab League–said: "I don’t think there will be any gain from his death…I believe the moment is not a moment of pointing fingers."
Israel’s Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres said: "I have no idea who did this. He lived in a dangerous country and they (the Lebanese government) should have taken control over that country. Instead of this they surrendered to all kinds of terrorists."
French President Jacques Chirac called for an international inquiry into the car bomb.
"(France) calls for an international inquiry to be held without delay to determine the circumstances of–and responsibility for–this tragedy–before punishing the culprits," Chirac’s office said in a statement.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom–speaking to reporters after meeting French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier–said the attack had killed "one of the most important leaders within Lebanon."
"We should be very determined not to allow those extremists to sabotage the efforts to bring freedom to the Lebanese in their own country," Shalom said.
Born in the southern city of Sidon to a poor family–Hariri was a Sunni Muslim with seven children–according to his Web site. Hariri–who grew up in poverty–moved to Saudi Arabia in 1965 to work as a school teacher–where he made his fortune by rebuilding palaces for the Saudi royal family. He made a fortune in construction in the kingdom and owns Saudi Oger Ltd. He and his family are worth $4.3 billion–Forbes magazine said last year.
The Lebanese government declared three days of official mourning.